Submitted by George Callaghan…
The Bangladesh Genocide is one of the largest scale genocides since 1945. Precious few people in the Occident are aware of this. Yet this gargantuan massacre was perpetrated with the active assistance of the United States and without much protest from other Western countries.
The meta lie of American identity is that the United States is ‘the last, best hope of earth.’ Americans are often fed the notion that their country is a model democracy. Both Republicans and Democrats will tell you that their democracy is deeply flawed but they have opposite reasons for doing so. What is most galling to many people outside the United States is the sanctimony surrounding Uncle Sam’s much vaunted mission to bring the blessings of democracy to the benighted peoples of less happy lands. The Cold War was supposedly fought for democracy by the United States. This flagrant falsehoods is swallowed by too many. The US fought for capitalism. This sometimes went with democracy and sometimes went against it. So often the US gave aid and comfort to charnel house chancelleries from Nicaragua to Indonesia. Henry Kissinger was behind much of this sickening slaughter.
I doubt one in a hundred Americans know that their government knowingly and enthusiastically abetted genocide in Bangladesh. Who now remembers the Bangladeshis? How many people even in the US Congress realise that in 1971 their country took the side of the most reactionary Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan against secularists and democrats? It is staggering that the US Government supported obscurantism against the enlightenment. On the other hand the religious mania espoused by Jamaat I Islami and kindred parties in Pakistan is simply an Islamic version of the religious mania espoused by a large constituency of the Republican Party.
President Nixon is one of the lares ac penates of the Republican Party. Richard Milhouse Nixon who had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. This military genius’ plan to defeat communism ended up being to give communists everything they wanted in Vietnam. Nixon who declared war on drugs. Which ended up being a triumph for drugs! Nixon who was a fearless cold warrior. Nixon the scourge of communism soon paid court to Mao Zedong at a stage when China was far more oppressive than the USSR. But precious few Republicans in the United States know that R M Nixon actively assisted an extensive campaign of enormous scale massacres of civilians in Bangladesh (then called East Pakistan).
Nixon’s catalysing genocide earned him barely a ticking off in the United States. No it was covering up a break in that had him forced to resign. Stealing documents from another party is an abhorrent grave crime. The murder of hundreds of thousands of brown people is not even a misdemeanour. With liberty and justice for all….
Let me set the scene. In 1971 Pakistan stood at the crossroads. The country was divided into two wings: West Pakistan (today’s Pakistan) and East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh). The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was a homeland for Muslims. It was not very homely for the 15% of its people who were not Muslims. This shariat state had been a military dictatorship for half of its 24 years. The fledgling state had hundreds of miles of hostile territory – India – in between its two wings.
The Republic of India was and is a democracy. It is surely a better one than the United States in terms of access to votes, political pluralism, responsiveness to the needs of the people, judicial independence, human rights and so forth. Half of all the people in free societies on earth live in India.
As America is supposedly the darling of democracy logic would dictate that Washington DC should coquette with Delhi. But when did logic ever play much of a role in the State Department’s mind?
Just to get a couple of hundred miles closer to the USSR the United States curried favour with Pakistan. The military dictatorship was only too happy to accept American largesse in return for granting the United States air bases. The mighty dollar conquers all! Uncle Sam also sold state of the art armaments to the Pakistanis. Spending eye watering sums on these killing machines drove the country deeper into poverty. In the 1960s this was a country with only 30% literacy! Getting all these boys toys from the United States did not stop the Pakistani top brass from being bosom buddies with America’s deadly foes such as the PLO and Red China. It was myopic of the United States to build up the arsenal of a country which was so inimical to putative American values.
The capital of Pakistan – Islamabad – was in the east. Most of the top jobs went to West Pakistanis despite Easterners making up 55% of the population. The official language was Urdu which was the mother tongue of some in the West but of almost no one in the East. The East spoke Bengali which has a different alphabet from Urdu and other Western languages. The languages of West Pak all shared the same alphabet. The Pakistani Army was the only institution that worked in this deeply dysfunctional country. The officer corps was recruited almost exclusively from the West. Many in West Pakistan were racist towards people from the East. They tended to views themselves as a martial race. By contrast they often looked down their noses at Bengalis whom they called by the opprobrious term of ‘bingoes’.
The inequities came to a head in 1971. A cyclone had decimated the East. The West reacted with cold hearted indifference. So much for Muslim solidarity! The Awami League – an exclusively Eastern party – won a majority in the elections to the National Assembly. The generals who ran the country refused to let the Awami League form a government despite this party having the most votes and the most seats.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was leader of the Awami League. He proposed autonomy for the East and a separate currency. Islamabad rejected his offer in the most insulting manner possible.
In March 1971 a rebellion erupted in East Pakistan. People in East Pakistan wanted to call the place ‘Bangladesh’. Many had gone to India for military training. They formed the Mukti Bahini (‘’freedom fighters’’).
The Pakistani Army launched Operation Searchlight. It was to identity and liquidate all anti-national elements. They were not too scrupulous in identifying who was anti-national. They took a very broad view of those who were held to be anti-Pakistan. The Awami League was proclaimed to be an unlawful and subversive organisation. Seditionists were to be given short shrift. Simply wanting democracy was held to be treasonous. Giving aid of any kind to Mukti Bahini was deemed worthy of instant death. This could include humanitarian acts such as nursing a wounded fighter.
The Pak Army attacked the University of Dhaka. There was not one armed person there. Academics and undergraduates were shot on sight. It was a bid to lobotomise the Bangladeshi people. The university soon resembled and abbatoir.
The Mukti Bahini engaged Pakistani Army units. The few Bengali units in the Pakistani Army mutinied. They went over to the Mukti Bahini. Former Pakistani soldiers in the Mukti Bahini were viewed as turncoats by the Pakistani Army. If captured they were afforded no mercy.
Islamabad said that the revolt was due to the wicked machinations of New Delhi. It is true that India had given aid and comfort to the insurrectionists. However, this was a genuinely popular national uprising. The Pak Government was at pains to lay the blame on the Hindu minority. The Hindus were labelled troublemakers and said to be plotting the downfall of Islam. The Pakistani Army declared open season on the already beleaguered Hindu minority. Thousands of Hindu males were butchered for their faith. Their womenfolk were subjected to ravishment and their chattels to rapine. Those Hindus who could fled for their lives to the Indian frontier. It is true that Mukti Bahini had more than its fair share of Hindu members. A Hindu could hardly be expected to identity with a country that he was unwelcome in. If this was a homeland for Muslims could a Hindu ever really feel at home there?
The Hindu-Muslim amity aspect of the Awami League was deeply objectionable to Pakistan. It struck at the core myth of Pakistan: the idea that Muslims and Hindus are separate nations. Brotherhood and co-operation between folk of different faiths was anathema to the Muslim separatist ideology.
The Pakistani Army viewed most of the populace of Bangladesh as legitimate targets. The officers authorised their men to rape any woman they wanted to. They believed that booty was booty. Their goods could be plundered. Such spoliations were held to be no sin. Nay, they were a virtuous act. This was not soldiers running amuck. In fact discipline held. They were ordered to do this.
Let me be fair. I am not suggesting that every Pakistani soldier was guilty of such crimes – even indirectly. Some were morally courageous and refused orders to commit crimes. A few even saved the lives of Bangladeshi civilians. The honour of those righteous Pakistanis deserves to be exalted.
In Bangladesh a few people were still pro-Pakistan. These were mostly religious reactionaries. Pro-government esquadrones de muerte were formed: Al Badr and Al Shams. They carried out many a razzia in areas thought to be composed of mainly pro-independence people.
Only two countries had consulates in East Pakistan at the time. These were the United States and the United Kingdom. Some of the Britishers were old hands from the colonial era not a quarter of a century earlier. A few of these Britons spoke flawless Bengali and were able to keep well abreast of evenements.
The American and British diplomats therefore had a ringside seat to this veritable colosseum of slaughter. Bangladesh is small in area, flat as a pancake and very densely populated. People and news travel fast. The sheer scale of the slaying was impossible to conceal. The hecatomb was photographed by some fearless journalists who smuggled the evidence abroad.
Some West Pakistanis were horrified by the abominations committed in their name. A few lonely voices courageously spoke out against it.
The Western diplomats were well aware of what was happening from contacts on all sides. The Mukti Bahini had appealed to the UK and the United States to use their good offices to make the Pakistani regime see sense. It was to no avail. Those in danger of being killed by the Pakistani Army and its militias came to the consulate gates beseeching to be let in. The Americans and British usually turned them away to certain death. Archer Blood was the US Consul in Dhaka. He defied ordered and sheltered some Hindus in his house. He is righteous among nations.
Some US and British consular officials spoke to Pakistani Army officers about well attested reports of the army and its auxiliaries killing civilians and raping women. The Pakistani officers usually admitted such accusations cheerfully. They expressed puzzlement that Britons and Americans should be exercised by such brutalities. It was not Brits or Yanks who were suffering. What has it got to do with you? War is war. They sought to allay the fears of the Westerns. Pakistanis assured the infidels that the tiny Christian minority in Bangladesh would not be harmed. In this at least the Pakistanis were as good as their word. They did not injure churches. Their solicitude towards followers of the Nazarene does not absolve them of manifold offences against the rights of everyone who did not bear true allegiance to Islamabad.
Some of the Pakistani officers were veterans of the pro-British Indian Army before 1947. The topmost had been trained at Sandhurst – that is the UK’s Royal Military Academy. It was deeply embarrassing for the UK that British trained officers should behave in such an appalling fashion.
The United Kingdom criticised Pakistan only in mealy mouthed terms. Why? The Commonwealth of Nations was held to be important then. The UK did not want to break it up. If London was too strident in denouncing Pakistan then Pakistan might withdraw from the Commonwealth. Further, several Muslim countries might leave with her. There was the notion of Muslim solidarity to contend with. Moreover, legally Bangladesh was then East Pakistan. This was an internal matter. This is why the UK was so pussy footed around this era. Incidentally, doesn’t the Bangladesh Liberation War show that British rule was elysian in comparison. Nothing ever even remotely approaching this scale of slaughter ever occurred in British India.
The international media learnt of the numerous atrocities. These crimes were reported across the globe.
Ulemas issued fatwas to say that any Muslim who supported independence for Bangladesh was in effect a Hindu. Therefore, he or she was fair game for murder or rape. Rape was committed against many females including even prepubescent girls.
Wars are never pretty. Civil wars are often particularly gruesome. Standards of decency are often jettisoned. A man who turns against his own country is often held to be unworthy of the least modicum of mercy. A Bangladeshi who remained faithful to Islamabad was seen as a fiend by his fellow Bangladeshis. These men had reason to fear meeting the fate of quislings. The West Pakistanis said that any East Pakistani who considered himself a Bangladeshi was a traitor to Pakistan.
The religious aspect to this conflagration rendered it even more brutal. As a religion claims to be the ultimate good its contemners must be the ultimate evil. The mandate of heaven imbues people with a frightening moral certitude. Theirs is a cause that brooks no opposition.
Even taking all this into account about the horrid nature of civil wars and religious wars the conduct of the Pakistani Army was unusually bad. It is true that the Mukti Bahini did wrong also. Some of them slew civilians suspected of being government supporters. They especially targeted people of the Bihari ethnic minority. Few nations have an immaculate conception. Birth is often bloody. Of course one can advance the argument that the United States was assisting Pakistan with a view to shielding the Bihari minority from the depredations of the Mukti Bahini. So far as I know the Mukti Bahini death squads did not regard Bihari women as spoils of war. Nor did the MB generally pillage the Biharis. One should not romanticise the Mukti Bahini overmuch. They were sometimes little better than an armed rabble. Some marauding banditti pretended to be MB which also discredited MB somewhat.
The Biharis in East Pakistan were viewed as traitors. They were not Bengali and could hardly bear true allegiance to Bangladesh. Some Bengalis were pro-Pakistan. They were viewed as Uncle Toms by most Bangladeshis. Some pro-Pak Bengalis formed the ‘Razakar’ which was an auxiliary corps helping the Pakistan Army. Why did some Bangladeshis take the side of the Rawalpindi junta? Those who did so were usually religious reactionaries who viewed the Bangladesh independence movement as divisive of Islam. There were others who were pro Pakistan for less high minded reasons. Some were well paid civil servants. They were simply after thirty pieces of silver.
Columns of terror-stricken refugees arrived at the Indian Frontier requesting asylum. To India’s eternal credit the Indians took pity upon them and granted them asylum.
Despite the superabundance of evidence that the Pakistani military was engaged in huge scale atrocities President Nixon stood four square behind Pakistan. He declined to nudge them into improving the conduct of their troops even a teensy bit. On the contrary, Nixon ordered a US Fleet into the Bay of Bengal. It was supposed to be a deterrent against Indian intervention on the side of the Mukti Bahini. The Nixon Administration’s fulsome support for Islamabad’s position led to a hardening of attitudes. Because the Pakistanis believed that the US would back them to the hilt the Pakistanis eschewed any notion of compromise or even of reining in their troops barbarities. If the United States had urged conciliation or threatened to abandon Pakistan if the army’s conduct did not improve radically then the Pakistanis would have been obliged to behave very differently.
The Pakistani Army was supposed to be defending what was then officially their own country. But they were sacking cities instead of protecting them.
American diplomats in Dhaka were horrified with the daily scenes of carnage. They had proof positive of large scale massacres. They repeatedly sent secret cables informing Washington DC of precisely what was going on. The Blood Telegram is the most famous example of dissent in US diplomacy. The name does not derive from the fact that it gave a very frank description of mass murder. It is because it was written by Archer Blood who was the US Consul General to East Pakistan. 20 other US diplomats signed it.
Nixon kept sticking his fingers in his ears. The Pakistanis were not commies so could do no wrong. The Indians, on the other hand, were trying to reduce poverty so they must be evil. It is true that the USSR also assisted Mukti Bahini and provided them with a few guns. However, there were virtually no communists in Bangladesh. The notion that the rebellion as communist inspired is for the birds.
The US Secretary of State at that time was one Henry Kissinger. Dr Kissinger was born in Germany to Jewish parents. Several of his cousins were done to death in the Holocaust. Did he not therefore feel a pang of conscience about consigning hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis to a similar gruesome fate? It is staggering that such a man should abet racial and religious odium. Kissinger was a staunch advocate for Israel. Yet Pakistan was a mortal foe of Israel. Why then did he support Pakistan which applauded those who were annihilate Israel? Part of the reason for sucking up to Pakistan was that there is the Umma – the worldwide Muslim community. Pakistan had the support of many other Muslim nations. As the US supported the Israeli illegal occupation of Palestine the US was keen to show that it was not anti-Muslim. This was an odd way of showing it. That is supporting one group of Muslims in slaughtering another group of Muslims. Kissinger is pugnaciously defending his record to this day. He is a man incapable of remorse or apology.
The US consul in Dhaka was so nauseated by Nixon’s morally bankrupt policy that he took the unique step of sending a telegram to other US diplomats around the globe. He voiced his abhorrence at the wicked and inept idea that the US should turn Nelson’s eye to these crimes on the basis that this would somehow redound to America’s advantage. Some American diplomats rightly said that it was obloquial that the US Government should be an accessory to genocide. The US had lost the moral high ground. How could the United States inveigh against the USSR for oppression when the United States was doing much worse?
There was a plethora of evidence proving that at least tens of thousands of civilians had been slaughtered by the Pakistani Army in just a few months. These were seldom cases of collateral damage. It was not bombarding a building containing enemy fighters and some civilians – both die. No, this was purposively killing civilians whilst being certain that they were civilians and had taken no action against the Pakistani Army. The wealth of proof about all this did not prick Nixon’s Quaker conscience. He had been raised as a pacifist!
In the US Congress there started to be an outcry. Senator Edward Kennedy is one of those who bravely spoke out against these crimes against humanity. Ted Kennedy was a many of many flaws. Do not get him to drive you home from the restaurant! But he sometimes acted morally.
So many civilians had been killed or raped that it could no longer be ignored. This could not be dismissed as ‘bad things happen in war.’ This went beyond the typical brutality of war with a few sadists on either side. No, it was different. This was systemic, pervasive and repeated. The Pakistani high command far from trying to prevent it or even being indifferent had actually ordered many of these crimes to be committed.
How did President Nixon respond? He gave the Pakistanis more military aid! Congress would not allow him to furnish the Pakistanis with weapons because Congress knew these would be used to kill women and children much more than to fight Mukti Bahini. Therefore, Nixon resorted to subterfuge. He ordered planes to fly the cargoes to friendly Muslim dictatorships such as Iran and Jordan. The Egyptians and Jordanians then unloaded the arms shipments and flew them on in their own planes for delivery to the Pakistanis. Again this stiffened their spine. The Pakistani will to resist was strengthened by American moral and practical support. If it had not been for that they would likely have sought and accommodation with the rebels or at the very least modified their conduct towards civilians. Due to Nixon’s fanatical Pakistani nationalism the Pakistani Army knew it could commit crimes with impunity.
Islamabad accused India of putting Mukti Bahini up to it. There is some truth in this. India was struggling to provide for several million refugees.
The Pakistanis made the cardinal error of bombing India. The Indians declared war. It was all over in a fortnight. The Indians inflicted a crushing defeat on the Pakistanis. The vanquished Pakistanis had to recognise the independence of Bangladesh.
What happened after the establishment of Bangladesh is not pleasant. Any man who had been loyal to Pakistan was viewed as a Judas. They were often summarily executed.
One of the after effects of the war were at least 200 000 Bangladeshi women pregnant by their rapists. An Australian gynaecologist was called to assist these women. Dr Davies became surely the most prolific abortionist of all time. Nixon was a principled opponent of abortion. He ended up indirectly causing hundreds of thousands of terminations.
Morality aside: Nixon had backed the wrong horse. It was a strategic blunder of the first order of magnitude. Leaning on Islamabad to compromise with the Awami League could have preserved Pakistani unity and thereby maintained America’s relatively strong position in South Asia. As for backing the Pakistani junta’s obdurate refusal to make reasonable concessions to the Awami League it makes me call to mind what Talleyrand said of the execution of the Duke of Enghien. ‘’It was worse than a crime – it was a mistake.’’
The subsequent President of Pakistan impanelled the Hamdoor Rahman Commission to investigate the allegations against the Pakistani Army and their Bangladeshi acolytes. It was chaired by the Chief Justice of Pakistan. Hamdoor Rahman was a Bengali born in Bihar. Some Bangladeshis viewed him as having sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. The findings of this commission were so explosive that the Pakistani has still not published the full report almost half a century later.
Was US policy not at least short sighted? It was imprudent if nothing else. The two wing state of Pakistani was scarcely viable. The unfair treatment of the East made the dissolution of the two wing state almost unavoidable. Nixon had consistently disregarded proof positive of massive scale crimes against humanity. Worse, he had provided Pakistan with the weapons to commit these crimes when he knew exactly what was going to be done with the weapons. He had expedited genocide.
Even the Pakistanis now acknowledge that at least several thousand civilians were deliberately killed by Pakistani troops who knew that their victims were civilians. The true figure is certainly tens of thousands. It might be hundreds of thousands. 300 000 is the figure around which there is an academic consensus. Not all of the 300 000 civilians killed were slain by the Pakistani Army and its allies. Not all of those slain by Pakistan were murdered. Some of them were killed as collateral damage as always happens in war.
Estimates of a civilian death toll of over a million are exaggerations. There is no need to inflate the figures. The truth is stark enough.
America’s reputation in Bangladesh has never recovered. Nor is Pakistan appreciative of American help. Where did Al Qa’eda and the Taleban base themselves after 2001? The Pakistanis are ingrates. The man who became president right after the Bangladesh War was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The US warned him not to pursue nuclear weapons. He did not heed this warning. That US later orchestrated his ouster and judicial murder but that is another story.
India has only recently formed an amicable relationship with the United States. Democratic India which had four times the population of Pakistan in 1971 was surely a much more suitable ally for the USA.
There are more than a few in the American Republic who are aghast at the incessant deceitfulness, ineptitude, imbecility, treachery and rampant criminality of Donald Trump. Critics of President Trump in the Republican Party often hark back to a real Republican president. They tend to say that Nixon fits the bill in terms of an admirable Republican commander in chief. Say what you like about Trump – pathological liar, pervert and racist would not be far wrong – but he has not assisted genocide whereas Nixon did.
It is nauseating but almost amusing to hear many American statesmen harp on about how their homeland has always advocated for democracy. So often the US has preached democracy whilst actually destroying it. ‘America defends democracy’ is a mantra that is repeated ad nauseam. People have heard it so often that many believe it. It is true that the United States has sometimes taken the side of democracy but that is principally when and because that has aligned with the interests of corporate America.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.